By Catherine R. Kennedy
Assistant Professor of Physics
On Jan. 28, 1986, the nation watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded and broke apart in the Earth’s atmosphere, ten miles above the ground, 73 seconds after launch. For the locals here in Tampa, the resultant plumes must have been a dreadful sight against the backdrop of that crystal-clear sky. Neither clouds nor haze were available to blur the blast and allow for the momentary thought that the crew might survive.
It was the O-ring that failed, they said. A rubber gasket on one of the solid rocket boosters–meant to ensure that the hot, high-pressure gas was directed out of the nozzle at the bottom of the rocket–allowed the gas to burn through the side of the booster, which quickly ignited an external tank. The subsequent breakup was inevitable. The last sounds recorded of a crew member were simply, “Uh-oh.” Then static. Then silence.
Reports from NASA and from congressional investigations, as well as an amendment to a report from the eminent physicist Richard Feynman, ensued, all devoted to “What went wrong, and why?” Suddenly, in the face of a jaw-dropped general public, the argument that “25 shuttle missions landed safely” was not a justifiable reason to launch, despite the red flags that it was too cold that morning. The integrity of the O-rings had never been tested at those low temperatures. There were warnings from the engineers that were disregarded. There was too much pressure to go for launch now, following frustration surrounding past delays and postponements. And there was no anonymous “go/no go” voting system based on the unbiased opinions of the professionals in the room. It’s all in the reports. Let us not focus on the cold hard truth of the failure now. Let us, instead, turn our attention toward the history of our passions and the poetry of that moment.
We humans have always had our eyes on the skies. The scale of the cosmos has enticed us, even from antiquity. We are fortunate to be alive in an age during which direct space exploration, both manned and unmanned, is possible. Many of us consider the Apollo missions of the 60’s and early 70’s to be a hallmark of one of the greatest moments in American history. It was the time when we chose to go to the Moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. John F. Kennedy willed it so. Perhaps few other orators left us with a refrain so bold and memorable as “We choose to go to the Moon!”
But the Moon landing was never enough for us. We were later delighted by our astronauts roving over the surface of the Moon in their “moon buggies”. We were mesmerized by the images of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune from the Voyager fly-by missions. We were stopped dead in our tracks with a sense of awe when the first images of the Hubble Deep Field came our way. We cheered and applauded when the rovers landed on Mars. We read every article that promoted the discovery of the most Earth-like planet. These explorations and discoveries are never enough for us, and they should never be enough for us.
Thirty years ago, the poetry of the moment was mediated by Christa McAuliffe, selected to be the very first teacher in space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Now there would be an educator to deliver lectures straight to our children’s classrooms from outer space! Truly, the nation was captivated by the idea. So captivated, in fact, that far too many millions of Americans witnessed the tragedy in live time. Our eyes were on the skies then. It wasn’t enough for us that there had never been a teacher in space.
As an astrophysicist, I am forever thankful and appreciative that my excitement for the study of the cosmos seems to be effortlessly mirrored by the general public. We all demand grand discoveries, anticipate breakthroughs in technology and engineering, and hang our hopes on those missions that are sure to answer our most pressing questions and reveal to us the fruits of that which has never been seen or done before.
As an educator, my heart warms under the realization that 30 years ago, the nation hung its hopes on a teacher. Thirty years ago, a social studies teacher stole the spotlight. Thirty years ago, Americans were unified in their respect and admiration for the education of their children. Thirty years ago, they watched for her, waited for her, and cried for her. We wish that we could, now, read first-hand accounts from scores of people who remember watching Christa McAuliffe in their classroom back in elementary school. We wish that the O-ring hadn’t failed.
But today, I hope that we reflect upon the poetry of that moment. We were captivated, not by a landing on Mars, but by a teacher of young minds. We will undoubtedly focus on the tragedy of Challenger today. But we should also remind ourselves that while few endeavors carry with them the sense of danger, drama, and grandeur of space flight, any ground broken by a teacher in service to our children is worthy of our attention. It was certainly worthy of our attention thirty years ago.